Shame Sony shame

Several days ago I was raving here about my new Sony laptop. While I still like it, I was disappointed by this story about Sony in Mediapost and how they paid to create ‘flog’ and pass it off as a citizen initiative. Sony and all companies have an obligation to label advertising as advertising and to NOT pass it off as a citizen initiative. They will harm their brand as well as the brands of companies which are transparent about such things. Sony has done the Net and its citizens a disservice.

Engaging with our customers for justice

magsellthru.JPG

This is magazine sell through data for seven magazine categories over 11 months for one of our newsagent clients. They need a sell through rate of 50% to break even for most titles. They are not achieving that for most months. They have no control to resolve this since the magazine distributors control what newsagents are sent. We have empowered newsagents by providing this report on demand direct from within the system. Of course, it has column headings and tags down the side for the magazine categories – I’m not showing it here to protect the guilty.

We are now engaged in a project to catalogue the data from a statistically sound sample group and present it more formally to illustrate the lack of fairness and justice in magazine supply for our small business newsagent clients and, indeed, all newsagents.

While not part of our obligation, we will help in any way we can. Our technology provides evidence of appalling behaviour by some big business suppliers to newsagents. The report itself was developed a couple of years ago when we were fighting a distributor in the newsagency I own at Forest Hill in Victoria.

Alinta lets us down

The promise by Alinta to have their power work in the street out the front of our office done by 7am was never going to happen it seems. The chaps doing the work did not start until after 7am and, according to them, were never going to. My call to Melissa Armstrong, their Customer Services representative, resulted in her hanging up on me when I reminded her of her commitment earlier this week that the job would be done by 7am. One of the guys doing the work told me “that was never going to happen”. Alinta customer service has been appalling for this time.

Business arrogance from Alinta as they plan to turn our power off

Alinta Asset Management stuck a postcard in our letterbox two days ago telling us that our power will be off for approximately 2 hours between 8am and 1:30pm Friday next week. After two days of trying I was finally able to speak with someone at Alinta. They are going to see what they can do. In the meantime we have to make alternative arrangements – as to the many other businesses in our street.

This is nonsense. The work is non urgent and could easily be done at the weekend when the impact of the disruption to supply will be less. Alinta seem to not care about the disruption. They say they have had plenty of calls complaining yet they seem unprepared to pay the additional cost of weekend work.

These people are not recent entrants to electricity distribution. Surely they understand something about the need for businesses to be open on a week day.

I’ve chased this far and wide and it seems we have no rights. Alinta can cut the power in the area for this maintenance when they like.

Amex and Citibank stalkers at the airport

Is it just me or do others agree that the sales people from American Express and Citibank are offensive in their aggressive sales tactics? I travel frequently and am annoyed by their intrusion. Even if I pass their booth with a wide berth I have had them almost chase me down. Not always, but enough to make me consider getting a water pistol to cool them down. Their tactics are damaging the Amex and Citibank brands in my view.

Deal or no deal for newsagents?

Is this a good deal or not? Access Pos, one of our competitors in the newsagent space, faxed newsagents yesterday with an offer which included the claim “MANY OF THESE PRICES ARE LESS THAN ONE THIRD OF OUR COMPETITORS.” It’s the same fax they sent early in October. Back then I emailed their Managing Director and advised (again) that the claim is untrue. Sure the hardware is cheap. However, you must buy their software. Once you do this and add some training and support, their price is higher than our price when compared to our most popular two package deals. They know this. I reminded them last month. Yet they again send out what is in my view, at best, a misleading statement. I have lodged a complaint with the ACCC.

Newsagents looking for a computer system ought to shop around and compare apples with apples. Choose the best system based on what it does for you. If you’re not sure, get two or three systems on the table next to each other and compare function by function. Check out the business reports and that they are designed to help you buiold a stronger business. Take your time. Then, compare price and not just price today but the price over, say, five years including support. Then, check out what free support services are available including user meetings, documentation and business help. Finally, get at least ten references and call every one of them. The more work you put into your decision the better the decision will be.

Small businesses keeping local traditions alive

blog_kaffe.JPGThis is how coffee is served in Vienna coffee houses. It’s a tradition the independent businesses uphold. Small businesses are good like that, upholding traditions. Sure a coffee in a take-away cup is hand if you are on the go but sometimes sitting and taking time to reflect over a coffee can be more useful than forever being on the move.

While I was sitting at café Mozart looking at my second coffee the tradition of their service led my mind to wander about the difference between this experience and that of a less traditional coffee house like Starbucks, or Cafe Nero in London or Hudson’s back in Melbourne. While those corporate coffee houses clearly provide a worthwhile service – you only have to see how busy they are – it’s more about the community aspect, providing a comfortable place for conversation and identifying with the aspirations represented by the brands.

Café Mozart, Café Schwarzenberg and the many other similar cafes here in Vienna seem to me to be more about respecting their heritage of good coffee, good food (cakes) and good service. They have not, from what I can see, moved with the times. They don’t need to. They are proud keepers of tradition.

Many small businesses are equally proud keepers of tradition, in the face of competitor, media and peer pressure to move with the times and adopt the next big thing in their channel. We need to find ways to make it cool to preserve traditions, good traditions of course. We need to understand and uphold that change is not always necessary. We need to show our small businesses as being important for keeping our part of the world like we like it.

I’d hate to come back to Vienna and find fewer places serving coffee in this way. It’s part of the charm of the city for me. If the global brands win more business and close more independent coffee shops down then I’d have less of a reason to travel here. That may sound extreme but local experiences, like coffee served this way, is one reason I enjoy travel.

Global giant Starbucks unwittingly helps a small retailer in Vienna

starbucks-vienna.JPG

I was shocked, when I rounded the corner just outside the Hofburg Palace in Vienna today, to find a Starbucks store next to Halder, the place I had come to visit. Halder is quintessentially Vienna, offering fine crafted products backed by perfect Viennese service. The quiet back-street has been disrupted by the coffee giant. Starbucks is the star and Halder the chorus. In this city of excellent coffee I could see no value in a Starbucks presence let along here next to the Halder store. I walked past the Starbucks and muttered something critical of globalisation.

The owner of the Halder store soon set me straight. I asked her what she thought about Starbucks, expecting some venting. She almost whispered how happy she was they were there. Even though they have only been open in this location for four months, business was up. Starbucks was proving to be an oasis for weary tourists – Vienna is a city where you walk most of the day to get around the key spots – and enough stopped in the Halder store to make Starbucks a welcome neighbor.

While business was steady before Starbucks, it was not showing great growth. Since Starbucks there has been good growth. New customers are finding Halder and as my own experience illustrates (three trips to Vienna and three trips to Halder) it’s a store you go back to. Their range is unique.

So, what does this mean for my views on globalisation? I cannot begrudge the owners of Halder the growth they have thanks to Starbucks. I also acknowledge that the coffee giant has created a store with some effort to fit in. Those points made, I have serious problems with globalisation: the bigger companies get, the more smaller competitors close; the more local customs are lost; the more service is a KPI and not something from within; and, the more a shrinking few control a growing bucket of global wealth.

It’s not all bad, as I found out in Vienna today.

Globalisation has London in its paw

starbucks.JPGMy take-away from the last two days in London is that globalisation has London in its paw. Major high street real-estate is controlled by global brands. Even side streets are populated with global brands. Local, quintessentially English businesses, are fading fast. From the coffee chains to fast food to fashion, London is less London today than it was a year ago and less then than a year before that. Soon, we won’t need to travel because the local experience we used to travel for will be gone and everything else, if one can make money from it, will be on tour.

No more credit

Please don’t ask for credit as refusal often offends.

I should have put one of those signs on the wall. Instead I believed a sad story more than a year ago and today have lost almost $10,000 as a result. Okay, I’m gullible. I’ll always help a client who asks. Discounts on support fees, canceling support fees or giving them time to pay if they are in what sounds like a real bind.

More than a year ago the story was sad. I believed it and allowed time to pay for a major upgrade. The warning signs were there. Slow and then no payments. I allowed more time. Dumb. Dumb. Dumb.

we need to remind ourselves that this is business and people will take you for a ride. So, rather than our business being offended with a bad debt, we’ll refuse and let people fix their problems elsewhere. It’s only fair.

I can afford the $10,000 but not the pain caused by being let down.

Support fee arrogance

Is there a benchmark for small business software support? In bigger businesses the expectation is that annual software support and updates cost around 20% of the purchase price. I am interested because we have just converted a client from another system. They were paying over $4,000 for software they purchased years ago for $6,000. Such a support fee seems a rip off. Our support charges have not changed in over four years and sit at around 10% of list price.

Who forgot to renew the encryption key and locked out 2000 newsagents?

Our help desk has been hammered this week with more than 400 calls from our newsagent clients having trouble accessing data from magazine distributors. The problem came about because XchangeIT, the company owned by the magazine distributors had not renewed encryption software. Their help desk (of 1 or 2) went into meltdown and they put the answering machine. That soon became full. So, newsagents turned to their software companies. On top of the 400 support calls we took, at least another 200 of our customers accessed advice from our website.

All this activity took resources away from our main focus – supporting our users with queries about our point of sale and home delivery software. The poor communication from the suppliers and inadequate backup support meant we had to fund their mistake. Then, once the dust had settled, they had the audacity to engage in spin, claiming that the problem was minor and that few were affected.

There are very few industries where suppliers would cause data problems in such a magnitude and then succeed in turning their back on helping their customers resolve the problems. Such are the challenges of the newsagency channel.

What XchangeIT does for newsagents is fantastic. My complaint always has been that a help desk supporting newsagents needs to operate 24 hours a day. The XchangeIT coverage is inadequate – hence the calls to our office on matters not related to us. There is a lack of respect from the XchangeIT team for what companies like mine do for them.

The software licence fee scam

One of our competitors has a facility in their software which claims to stop the system running if the annual software support fee is not paid. Oh, they have now started calling it a “licence fee”. Anyway, there is a pop-up at support renewal time saying the system will stop running if support is not paid. The Age ran a story about this more than ten years ago. I was interviewed as was a Director of the competitor company. The Age article raised some good questions about the practice, questions which remain today. This approach of holding users to ransom to protect your revenue stream is offensive to me. It demonstrates a lack of belief in your own product. It preys on the weak and ought to stop.

If you are considering purchasing software for your small business be sure to ask what the support fees are and whether your software will stop working if you elect to now take out support coverage. Get the answers in writing.

Shonky hardware support deals

We recommend that our clients do not contract for hardware support coverage and that they instead bank what they would have spent for use if hardware does fail. This can save an average small business around $3,000 a year – enough for ten average call outs or a couple of new computers.

This is on my mind today because of a story I have heard of a small business which paid their supplier $3,000 and, a week after reporting a serious problem, is yet to get satisfaction. In fact, it took two days for them to get a call back. When I questioned them they said they understood all computer companies to be this slow. It’s nuts. If you pay $3,000 for hardware support then you ought to get hardware support – on time and delivering a viable outcome. I’ve told them to cancel the contract and request a refund.

Managing the category

We are pressuring greeting card companies to get serious in helping their retail partners to manage the category. Currently there is no common categorisation of greeting cards – making management at the retail store very challenging. Here’s what we published this week in our supplier newsletter:

A call for greeting card category standards
While magazine publishers and distributors long ago reached agreement on category standards, greeting card companies continue to fail newsagents. The lack of standards makes store level reporting, within the greeting card category, challenging. In our software newsagents have exceptional reporting tools – return on floor space, return on shelf space, supplier comparisons, ROI – there are many angles from which newsagents can analyse data gathered by the system. It is impossible for newsagents to determine the best card supplier in their store. This denies them the opportunity to be business like.

Some newsagents are so frustrated by this experience that they are planning to place barcode stickers on cards before they are placed on the shelf.

Card manufacturers must act urgently and together to sort this out. Every month the current situation continues is another month newsagents are not able to have the best possible information available to build their business.
The IT standards necessary to manage this already exist.

We take our role in representing the needs of our customers to their suppliers seriously. If we can get suppliers on the same page on this topic the time saving for our customers could be considerable.

I’d hate to be under a MYOB billboard

MYOB is running a billboard campaign using arrows pointing to the businesses in the building underneath. I have seen several of these now. If I were in one of the offices MYOB is pointing at I’d be asking for a payment from the software company. It’s a smart alec, arrogant even, campaign which misses the opportunity to promote the benefits of their software. Too cute by half I say.

MYOB pointing the finger

MYOB is putting up billboards with arrows pointing to businesses below and to the side, saying they should be running the MYOB software. Not the best way to advertise in my view. If I was a business below such a sign I’d want compensation for MYOB leveraging off my good name. They need to focus more on selling the benefits rather than their arrogance.

Damn reference checks

I don’t mind reference check calls from individual businesses considering hiring a former employee. They are usually over quickly, especially if the former employee has been given a glowing written reference. It’s the calls from the personnel agencies which frustrate the hell out of me. They usually ask if you have ten to fifteen minutes to spare to answer their questions. My “NO” is met with shock. As if anyone is going to give them this amount of time doing their job for them. Personnel agencies charge way too much as it is. Surely they could do a better job than calling a former employer to ask inappropriate questions. It is not my place to say what I think of their personal situation or whether they are likely to have a gambling problem etc. While I happily write a reference, I now refuse to answer questions from personnel agencies.

Maybe it’s the sunshine

In Cairns yesterday I was stuck at the Qantas Club while their network worked through problems caused by fog in Melbourne and Brisbane. As I approached the counter I steeled myself for the gruff impersonal service I was used from Qantas in Sydney and Melbourne. Rather than what I expected the service was friendly and helpful. I asked how long they had been with Qantas, figuring that they had not been fully indoctrinated. No, this was a long term Qantas employee. If it were up to me I’d put them in charge of employee training and motivation. Her response was how could you be grumpy living and working in Cairns. This experience shows that there is hope for Qantas yet.

More IT jobs moving overseas?

First it was the Indians, now the Indonesians are trying to move Australian work offshore. The pitch in the letter I received last week from an Australian owned front company was simple – software development in Indonesia costs less and the quality just as good.

All it will take is one competitor to significantly reduce development costs to get others to take up the opportunity. They will have no choice.

Personally, I have no interest. My software company develops vertical market solutions for newsagents, hair salons, jewellers, bike retailers and gift shops. Moving development offshore would mean letting go of valuable intellectual capital invested in developers, designers and the rest of the team which creates and supports our software. While in a business sense it may be naive to hang on to such a cost structure, one has to hope that such knowledge reflects in a better solution.

While companies representing overseas programming shops can tout for business as much as they like I’d like to see some in-depth reporting of the impact on an already challenged Australian IT industry.

I wonder if companies using overseas outsourcing can claim the governments R&D tax break?

I also wonder how many of the Indonesian programmers were trained in Australian universities and given their work experience here using our country’s flexible student visas?

Poor customer service from Virgin Blue

Seven of us flew from Melbourne to Hobart with Virgin Blue on Tuesday. We boarded the plane with boarding passes printed using their web check in service. On board we found other passengers in six of our seven seats. The flight was delayed ten minutes while the Virgin Blue staff sorted out the mess. Our group was split and spread over the plane and those traveling alone were left in the group of seats together which were allocated on our boarding passes.

This is the second time the Virgin Blue web check in has let me down. This time as then (two months ago) the Virgin Blue staff said that a web check in is not a real check in. Hey, Virgin, if that is the case you need to remove it as an option from your website. Also, what does it say about securing when two people with the same seat allocation are allowed to board? The confusion on board could enable someone to travel when they should not.

Personally, the Virgin Blue system reallocated me to a middle seat. I hate middle seats. I travel around 100 times a year domestically yet this loyalty to Virgin counts for little. They took my preferred aisle, gave that to someone else and stuck me down the back in the middle. This shows little regard for customer service.

Their approach to resolving the problem was appalling.

After we landed in Hobart a passenger from row one (not part of our group) told me that the Virgin flight attendants were complaining about us. They said “look, they’re just standing there” – as we waited for the double seat allocation to be corrected. Well, Virgin, what were we to do. There was a bear in my seat and where should I go? These same gossiping Virgin staff also bitched, apparently, about the web check in service.

We’re flying back to Melbourne today. I have used web check in again. Let’s see if Virgin Blue continue their poor service.

The best POS software – only you can know

A common question we are asked by people considering our POS software is how it compares to what they currently use or to other products in the marketplace. We cannot answer this question because we don’t know the other systems the way we know our own. Only people who have used both for as reasonable period of time can make any knowledgeable statement. So, that’s what we say to enquirers – that we cannot objectively comment. We can and do point out what we know to be differences but we are careful to focus only on what we know to be true.

It’s difficult choosing a point of sale system for a business but the more effort put into the decision the greater the opportunity of making the right decision. Only the software itself can tell you if it is right for your business – not the salesperson or their level of hospitality or brown nosing.

The best advice I can provide for anyone looking for a point of sale system is to work out what you want; talk to users of the systems on your short list; ask existing users for others to talk to; check out the company online; talk to suppliers in their marketplace; and, only then, talk to the software company. It’s your decision, keep control.

Circle the wagons, the Indians are coming

Okay, not those Indians…

No sooner had I blogged about a new software support role in our Brisbane office and two Indian companies made contact suggesting I move the positions offshore. Besides that I would not do a Qantas and shift Australian jobs offshore, their pitch was completely impractical given that this is a field position. Not happy with that response, one of the Indian companies suggested I consider closing down my software development team here and contracting the work to them for a quarter of what it costs today. It was a hard sell – telling me that my company will fall behind unless I move development to India and cut development costs.

When I received the usual telemarketing call from Mumbai or some other Indian city Friday night at home I at first thought one of the companies had tracked me to my home for another crack.

It is unacceptable to me that companies like Qantas, banks and insurance companies move jobs offshore. No share price boost is worth the social and economic damage in our country. We ought to be more parochial.

ANZ to customers: don’t reply to our letters

I received a letter from the ANZ two weeks ago containing some information which was not correct. I replied to the author. It turns out that I have done the wrong thing. The ANZ does not want its customers responding to the people whose names appear on a business letter. “They’re the department heads, you cannot write to them” I was told by an ANZ staffer yesterday. “You have to call and wait in line like everyone else.” You gotta love the banks.